Switchblade(6)
Author:Michael Connelly


    “Good morning, Mrs. Welton.”

    “Good morning.”

    She said the words like they were synonyms for please don’t hurt me. But everyone in the courtroom knew it was my job to hurt her today and thereby hurt the state’s case against my client, Leonard Watts. Welton was in her sixties and matronly. She didn’t look fragile but I had to hope she was.

    Welton was a Beverly Hills housewife and one of three victims who were roughed up and robbed in a pre-Christmas crime spree resulting in the nine charges against Watts. The police had labeled him the “Bumper Car Bandit,” a strong-arm thief who followed targeted women from the malls, bumped into their cars at stop signs in residential neighborhoods, and then took their vehicles and belongings at gunpoint when they stepped out of their cars to check for damage. He then pawned or resold all the goods, kept any cash, and dropped the cars off at chop shops in the Valley.

    But all of that was alleged and hinged on someone identifying Leonard Watts as the culprit in front of the jury. That was what made Claire Welton so special and the key witness of the trial. She was the only one of the three victims who pointed Watts out to the jury and unequivocally claimed that he was the one, that he did it. She was the seventh witness presented by the prosecution in two days but as far as I was concerned she was the only witness. She was the number one pin. And if I knocked her down at just the right angle, all the other pins would go down with her.

    I needed to roll a strike here or the jurors who were watching would send Leonard Watts away for a very long time.

    I carried a single sheet of paper with me to the witness stand. I identified it as the original crime report created by a patrol officer who was first to respond to the 911 call placed by Claire Welton from a borrowed cell phone after the carjacking occurred. It was already part of the state’s exhibits. After asking for and receiving approval from the judge, I put the document down on the ledge at the front of the witness stand. Welton leaned away from me as I did this. I was sure most members of the jury saw this as well.

    I started asking my first question as I walked back to the lectern between the prosecution and defense tables.

    “Mrs. Welton, you have there the original crime report taken on the day of the unfortunate incident in which you were victimized. Do you remember talking with the officer who arrived to help you?”

    “Yes, of course I do.”

    “You told him what happened, correct?”

    “Yes. I was still shaken up at the—”

    “But you did tell him what happened so he could put a report out about the man who robbed you and took your car, is that correct?”

    “Yes.”

    “That was Officer Corbin, correct?”

    “I guess. I don’t remember his name but it says it on the report.”

    “But you do remember telling the officer what happened, correct?”

    “Yes.”

    “And he wrote down a summary of what you said, correct?”

    “Yes, he did.”

    “And he even asked you to read the summary and initial it, didn’t he?”

    “Yes, but I was very nervous.”

    “Are those your initials at the bottom of the summary paragraph on the report?”

    “Yes.”

    “Mrs. Welton, will you now read out loud to the jury what Officer Corbin wrote down after talking with you?”

    Welton hesitated as she studied the summary before reading it.

    Kristina Medina, the prosecutor, used the moment to stand and object.

    “Your Honor, whether the witness initialed the officer’s summary or not, counsel is still trying to impeach her testimony with writing that is not hers. The people object.”

    Judge Michael Siebecker narrowed his eyes and turned to me.

    “Judge, by initialing the officer’s report, the witness adopted the statement. It is present recollection recorded and the jury should hear it.”

    Siebecker overruled the objection and instructed Mrs. Welton to read the initialed statement from the report. She finally complied.

    “‘Victim stated that she stopped at the intersection of Camden and Elevado and soon after was struck from behind by a car that pulled up. When she opened her door to get out and check for damage, she was met by a black male thirty to thirty-five YOA—’ I don’t know what that means.”

    “Years of age,” I said. “Keep reading, please.”

    “‘He grabbed her by the hair and pulled her the rest of the way out of the car and to the ground in the middle of the street. He pointed a black, short-barrel revolver at her face and told her he would shoot her if she moved or made any sound. The suspect then jumped into her car and drove off in a northerly direction, followed by the car that had rear-ended her vehicle. Victim could offer no…”

    I waited but she didn’t finish.

    “Your Honor, can you instruct the witness to read the entire statement as written on the day of the incident?”

    “Mrs. Welton,” Judge Siebecker intoned. “Please continue to read the statement in its entirety.”

    “But, Judge, this isn’t everything I said.”

    “Mrs. Welton,” the judge said forcefully. “Read the entire statement as the defense counselor asked you to do.”

    Welton relented and read the last sentence of the summary.

    “‘Victim could offer no further description of the suspect at this time.’”

    “Thank you, Mrs. Welton,” I said. “Now, while there wasn’t much in the way of a description of the suspect, you were from the start able to describe in detail the gun he used, isn’t that right?”

    “I don’t know about how much detail. He pointed it at my face so I got a good look at it and was able to describe what I saw. The officer helped me by describing the difference between a revolver and the other kind of gun. I think an automatic, it’s called.”

    “And you were able to describe the kind of gun it was, the color, and even the length of the barrel.”

    “Aren’t all guns black?”

    “How about if I ask the questions right now, Mrs. Welton?”

    “Well, the officer asked a lot of questions about the gun.”

    “But you weren’t able to describe the man who pointed the gun at you, and yet two hours later you pick his face out of a bunch of mug shots. Do I have that right, Mrs. Welton?”

    “You have to understand something. I saw the man who robbed me and pointed the gun. Being able to describe him and recognize him are two different things. When I saw that picture, I knew it was him, just as sure as I know it’s him sitting at that table.”

    I turned to the judge.

    “Your Honor, I would like to strike that as nonresponsive.”

    Medina stood up.

    “Judge, counsel is making broad statements in his so-called questions. He made a statement and the witness merely responded. The motion to strike has no foundation.”

    “Motion to strike is denied,” the judge said quickly. “Ask your next question, Mr. Haller, and I do mean a question.”

    I did and I tried. For the next twenty minutes I hammered away at Claire Welton and her identification of my client. I questioned how many black people she knew in her life as a Beverly Hills housewife and opened the door on interracial identification issues. All to no avail. At no point was I able to shake her resolve or belief that Leonard Watts was the man who robbed her. Along the way she seemed to recover one of things she said she had lost in the robbery. Her self-confidence. The more I worked her, the more she seemed to bear up under the verbal assault and send it right back at me. By the end she was a rock. Her identification of my client was still standing. And I had bowled a gutter ball.

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